The Mensheviks (Russian: Меньшевик, Russian pronunciation: [mʲɪnʲʂᵻˈvʲik]) were a faction of the Russian revolutionary movement that emerged in 1904 after a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov, both members of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The dispute originated at the Second Congress of that party, ostensibly over minor issues of party organization. Martov's supporters, who were in the minority in a crucial vote on the question of party membership, came to be called "Mensheviks", derived from the Russian word меньшинство (men'shinstvo, "minority"), whereas Lenin's adherents were known as "Bolsheviks", from bol'shinstvo ("majority").

Neither side held a consistent majority over the course of the congress. The split proved to be long-standing and had to do both with pragmatic issues based in history such as the failed revolution of 1905, and theoretical issues of class leadership, class alliances, and bourgeois democracy. While both factions believed that a "bourgeois democratic" revolution was necessary, the Mensheviks generally tended to be more moderate and were more positive towards the "mainstream" liberal opposition.


The split

At the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP in August 1903, Lenin and Martov disagreed, first about which persons should be in the editorial committee of the party newspaper Iskra, and then about the definition of a "party member" in the future party statute. While the difference in the definitions was very small, with Lenin's being slightly more exclusive (Lenin's formulation required the party member to be a member of one of the party's organizations, whereas Martov's only stated that he should work under the guidance of a party organization), it was indicative of what became an essential difference between the philosophies of the two emerging factions: Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters, whereas Martov believed it was better to have a large party of activists with broad representation.

Martov's proposal was accepted by the majority of the delegates. After several delegates, including representatives of the Jewish Bund, stormed out of the Congress in protest for unrelated reasons, Lenin's supporters won a slight majority, which was reflected in the composition of the Central Committee and the other central Party organs elected at the Congress. That was also the reason behind the naming of the factions. Despite the outcome of the congress, the following years saw the Mensheviks gathering considerable support among regular Social Democrats and effectively building up a parallel party organization.

Membership and Composition

1905 1906 1907
Bolsheviks 8,400 13,000 46,100
Mensheviks 8,400 18,000 38,200
Total RSDLP 16,800 31,000 84,300

By 1910 both factions together had fewer than 10,000 members.[1]

Membership % Russian Jewish Nobles Uprooted peasantry
Bolsheviks 78.3 10 22 38
Mensheviks 34 20 19 26



In 1906, at the 4th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, a reunification was formally achieved. In contrast to the Second Congress, the Mensheviks were in the majority from start to finish; yet, Martov's definition of a party member, which had prevailed at the First Congress, was replaced by Lenin's. On the other hand, numerous disagreements regarding alliances and strategy emerged. The two factions kept their separate structures and continued to operate separately.

Just as before, both factions believed that Russia was not developed to a point at which socialism was possible and believed that the revolution for which they fought to overthrow the Tsarist regime would be a bourgeois democratic revolution. Both believed that the working class had to contribute to this revolution. However, after 1905, the Mensheviks were more inclined to work with the liberal "bourgeois" democratic parties such as the Constitutional Democrats, because these would be the "natural" leaders of a bourgeois revolution.

In contrast, the Bolsheviks didn't believe that the Constitutional Democrats were capable of sufficiently radical struggle and tended to advocate alliances with peasant representatives and other radical socialist parties such as the Socialist Revolutionaries. In the event of a revolution, this was meant to lead to a dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, which would carry the bourgeois revolution to the end. The Mensheviks came to argue for predominantly legal methods and trade union work, while the Bolsheviks favoured armed violence.

Some Mensheviks left the party after the defeat of 1905 and joined legal opposition organisations. After a while, Lenin's patience wore out with their compromising and in 1908 he called these Mensheviks "liquidationists".

In 1912, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party went through its final split, with the Bolsheviks constituting the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) and the Mensheviks the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Mensheviks).

The Menshevik faction split further in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. Most Mensheviks opposed the war, but a vocal minority supported it in terms of "national defense".

1917 Revolution

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty by the February Revolution in 1917, the Menshevik leadership led by Irakli Tsereteli demanded that the government pursue a "fair peace without annexations", but in the meantime supported the war effort under the slogan of "defense of the revolution". Along with the other major Russian socialist party, the Socialist Revolutionaries (эсеры), the Mensheviks led the emerging network of Soviets, notably the Petrograd Soviet in the capital, throughout most of 1917.

With the collapse of the monarchy, many social democrats viewed previous tactical differences between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks as a thing of the past and a number of local party organizations were merged. When Bolshevik leaders Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin and Matvei Muranov returned to Petrograd from Siberian exile in early March 1917 and assumed the leadership of the Bolshevik party, they began exploring the idea of a complete re-unification of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the national level, which Menshevik leaders were willing to consider. However, Lenin and his deputy Grigory Zinoviev returned to Russia from their Swiss exile on April 3, 1917 and re-asserted control of the Bolshevik party by late April 1917, taking it in a more radical, anti-war direction. They called for an immediate revolution and the transfer of all power to the Soviets, which made any re-unification impossible.

Leaders of the Menshevik Party at Norra Bantorget in Stockholm, Sweden, May 1917. Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov and Alexander Martinov

In March–April 1917 the Menshevik leadership conditionally supported the newly formed liberal Russian Provisional Government. After the collapse of the first Provisional Government on May 2, 1917 over the issue of annexations, Tsereteli convinced the Mensheviks to strengthen the government for the sake of "saving the revolution" and enter a socialist-liberal coalition with Socialist Revolutionaries and liberal Constitutional Democrats, which they did on May 4, 1917 (Old Style). With Martov's return from European exile in early May, the left wing of the party challenged the party's majority led by Tsereteli at the first post-revolutionary party conference on May 9, but the Right wing prevailed 44–11. From that point on, the Mensheviks had at least one representative in the Provisional Government until it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution of 1917.

With the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks clearly diverging, Russian Mensheviks and non-factional social democrats returning from European and American exile in spring-summer of 1917 were forced to take sides. Some re-joined the Mensheviks. Some, like Alexandra Kollontai, joined the Bolsheviks directly. A significant number, including Leon Trotsky and Adolf Joffe, joined the non-factional Petrograd-based anti-war group called Mezhraiontsy, which merged with the Bolsheviks in August 1917. A small but influential group of social democrats associated with Maxim Gorky's newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) refused to join either party.

After the 1917 Revolution

This split in the party crippled the Mensheviks' popularity, and they received 3.2% of the vote during the Russian Constituent Assembly election in November 1917 compared to the Bolsheviks' 25 percent and the Socialist Revolutionaries' 57 percent. The Mensheviks got just 3.3% of the national vote, but in the Transcaucasus they got 30.2% of the vote. 41.7% of their support came from the Transcaucasus. In Georgia c.75% voted for them. [3]The right wing of the Menshevik party supported actions against the Bolsheviks, while the left wing, the majority of the Mensheviks at that point, supported the Left in the ensuing Russian Civil War. However, Martov's leftist Menshevik faction refused to break with the right wing of the party with the result that their press was sometimes banned and only intermittently available.

During World War I, some anti-war mensheviks had formed a group called Menshevik-internationalists (меньшевики-интернационалисты). They opposed war and 'social chauvinism', were active around the newspaper Novaya Zhizn and took part in the Mezhraiontsy formation. After July 1917 events in Russia, they broke with Menshevik majority that supported war. The mensheviks-internationalists became the hub of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (of internationalists) (РСДРП (интернационалистов)). In 1920, right-wing mensheviks-internationalists emigrated, some of them pursued anti-bolshevik activities.[4]

Noe Zhordania, Menshevik leader and Prime Minister of Georgia

The Democratic Republic of Georgia was a stronghold of the Mensheviks. In parliamentary elections held on February 14, 1919 they won 81.5 percent of the votes, and the Menshevik leader Noe Zhordania became Prime minister.

Prominent members of Georgian Menshevik Party were Noe Ramishvili, Evgeni Gegechkori, Akaki Chkhenkeli, Nikolay Chkheidze and Alexandre Lomtatidze. After the occupation of GDR by the Bolsheviks in 1921, many Georgian Mensheviks led by Zhordania fled to Leuville-sur-Orge, France where they set up, in a small castle, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Georgia in Exile. In 1930 Ramishvili was assassinated by a Soviet spy in Paris.

Menshevism was finally made illegal after the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921. A number of prominent Mensheviks emigrated thereafter. Martov who was suffering from ill health at this time went to Germany, where he died in 1923. However, before his death he established the paper Socialist Messenger. The Socialist Messenger would move along with the Menshevik centre from Berlin to Paris in 1933 and then in 1939 to New York City, where it was to be published up until the early 1970s.


  1. ^ Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pages 364-5
  2. ^ Tony Cliff, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, page 37
  3. ^ Oliver Henry Radkey, The Election to the Russian Constituent Assembly
  4. ^

Further reading

  • Haimson, Leopold H: The Mensheviks : From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War
  • Haimson, Leopold H: The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries: Voices from the Menshevik Past
  • Liebich, André: From the other shore: Russian social democracy after 1921. Cambridge, Mass., London 1997
  • Moorehead, Alan: The Russian Revolution. Harper & Brother, New York, New York 1958.
  • Shanin, Teodor: Russia, 1905-1907: Revolution as a Moment of Truth. New Haven, 1985.

See also

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  • Menshevik — (adj.) 1907, from Rus. men shevik, from men she lesser (comparative of malo little, from PIE root *mei small; see MINUS (Cf. minus)) + evik one that is. So called by Lenin because they were a minority in the party. Earlier used in reference to… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Menshevik — [men′shə vik΄] n. pl. Mensheviks or Mensheviki [men′shəvē΄kē] [Russ (1903) < menshe, the smaller, less, minority < OSlav miniji, smaller < IE * mineu , var. of base * mei , to lessen > L minor] a member of the minority faction… …   English World dictionary

  • Menshevik — Menshevism /men sheuh viz euhm/, n. Menshevist, adj. /men sheuh vik/; Russ. /myin shi vyeek /, n., pl. Mensheviks, Mensheviki / vik ee, vee kee/; Russ. / vyi kyee /. a member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers party in opposition to the… …   Universalium

  • Menshevik — noun (plural Mensheviks or Mensheviki) Etymology: Russian men shevik, from men she less; from their forming the minority group of the party Date: 1907 a member of a wing of the Russian Social Democratic party before and during the Russian… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Menshevik — Menchevik Dirigeants mencheviks à Norra Bantorget à Stockholm en mai 1917 : Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov et Alexander Martinov. Les mencheviks constituent la faction minoritaire du Parti ouvrier social démocrate de Russie (POSDR) lors de l… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Menshevik — noun A member of the gradualist wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party during the years preceding the Russian Revolution …   Wiktionary

  • Menshevik — [ mɛnʃɪvɪk] noun a member of the non Leninist wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, defeated by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Origin from Russ. Menʻshevik a member of the minority , from menʻshe less …   English new terms dictionary

  • menshevik — men·she·vik …   English syllables

  • Menshevik — Men•she•vik [[t]ˈmɛn ʃə vɪk[/t]] n. pl. viks, vik•i [[t] ˌvɪk i, ˌvi ki[/t]] gov (sometimes l.c.) a member of the moderate wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party which, in opposition to the Bolsheviks, advocated gradual development… …   From formal English to slang

  • Menshevik — /ˈmɛnʃəvɪk/ (say menshuhvik) noun (plural Mensheviki /ˈmɛnʃəvɪki/ (say menshuhvikee) or Mensheviks) Russian History a member of a less radical socialist party or group of the Social Democratic Party opposing the Bolshevik government. {Russian:… …   Australian English dictionary

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